Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A day I'll never get back, courtesy of the American Commuter Rail System

What's the point of even HAVING a blog if you can't give in to a sleep deprivation-induced rant now and then?

My sister’s house in Barre, 4:30 AM, December 27- my nephews head to Washington DC by car in a blizzard which is forecast to only get worse as they travel south- they are going to drive right into the center of the storm, Springfield, Massachusetts, in a car without snow tires. They are insane. I go back to sleep- I’m the smart one in the family. I have a train ticket, purchased months earlier. Suckers. They’ll probably end up spending the day at the Fabulous Comfort Inn of Brattleboro. I’ll be living the high life in business class, gulping down complimentary sodas and coffee and watching movies on my laptop and reading my Kindle in comfort.

Montpelier-Barre, 9:30 AM for a scheduled 9:42 departure: “the train may be an hour late, it may be on time, don’t know yet” says the hobo who apparently lives in the 8x8 ‘station.’.” (snicker, bemused grin: I believe the Bemused Grin is the Official Facial Expression of Amtrak Employees. If I had seen it one more time before the end of my trip, I would have ended up on the Early Morning News.)

The train arrived five minutes late.

Hartford, Connecticut: We arrive exactly on time despite traveling through white-out conditions. Very impressive. Oddly enough, when we reach Hartford, no one considered that upon changing engines, the tracks would need to be cleared of snow. So we are stuck here for two hours as two guys with shovels clear the tracks and two other guys “try to unfreeze the locking system.” At this point, I think it’s fair to remind everyone that we are in the closing days of 2010, not the freaking Gilded Age.

(It’s around this time that I notice that I am no longer getting power from the AC plug, but my computer is being drained of battery life. Nowhere in business class is there a working power outlet. IN BUSINESS CLASS.)

New York: 8 PM. We are still only slightly behind schedule, but here’s where it all goes to hell in a handbasket. We are at Penn Station for two and a half hours because....well, the ‘because’ all depends on which Bemused Amtrak Employee you happen to ask. One guy tells me it’s because there are problems with the switching system south of the city (this is confirmed by a text from my niece in Vermont.) Another guy tells me that it’s another engine problem, and this is confirmed by repeated (I mean every four minutes or so) explanations and apologies broadcast over the intercom– “we’ve got mechanics coming to Look at It, and they’ll determine what to do next...” Several times we are told that there are MAJOR DELAYS IN LEAVING NEW YORK CITY, in a tone which suggests that we should have known this already, never mind that the only alerts I got from obsessively checking online and calling Amtrak four times in the hours before boarding were that trains were cancelled between Boston and New York and south of Washington, DC. So exactly WHEN were we supposed to get this info about MAJOR DELAYS IN LEAVING NEW YORK? WHERE was this info? On the televisions Amtrak doesn’t provide? I mean, this announcement was in the same tone as a pilot declaring “I’ll just remind you that we are flying at VERY HIGH ALTITUDES today, keep that in mind....”

We even get a “I guess No News is Good News” announcement, which is totally mystifiying to me, maybe because I once spent 24 hours on an Amtrak train in Springfield Mass waiting for the East Coast Blackout of 2004 to clear up, and never once got any kind of status update at all (when I called Amtrak several days later to get information getting a refund, the operator actually acted surprised.) only to have to return to Barre and start the trip all over again a few days later (that’s right- in August of 2004 I spent 36 hours on an Amtrak train, only to end up right where I started. I'd like to see the kid in this commercial play-act THAT eventuality. )

Several Amtrak Employees of Uncertain Duties are sitting in the dining car, ignoring their piercingly loud walkie-talkies as they smirk and giggle and speak in code about engines “blowing up” and “working 195" and “delivering 36" and how the train we’re on may or may not move south of Philadelphia, assuming it ever leaves Penn Station. They have a lot of questions, but no answers- in fact, they think that the idea they should have answers is kind of silly, and they let you know it.

New Carrollton, MD, 2:30 AM- for the first time EVER, I fall asleep on an Amtrak train. Naturally, I’m only 30 minutes from my destination, so I’m in the middle of a dream when I’m suddenly shaken awake by the conductor, who is anxious that I get off the train as soon as it pulls into the station, so I can begin to wait for the subway system to reopen as quickly as possible, I guess.

Washington, DC, 3 AM: 16.5 hours after I got on the train in Montpelier, I get off at Union Station. The subways are of course closed down until 5:20, so there’s nothing to do but sit at Au bon Pain and type. There aren’t even any Hot Spots available. I do get one more bit of amusement in checking the “Arrivals” board- it tells me that my train has Arrived, and the Arrival time is 10:40 PM. What Amtrak lacks in Honesty it makes up with Chutzpah, I guess.

Washington DC, 4:15 AM: Finishing up my little missive here at Au bon Pain, only an hour and a half away from being able to take the train to Takoma Park, then wait for a bus to my house. Estimated total trip time, from sister’s house to mine: 22.5 hours.

(I flew to San Francisco once- I got on the plane at Newark, sat on the tarmac for an hour, then had to exit the plane and wait six hours for another flight when it was discovered that some jackass had attempted to flush a disposable diaper down the plane’s one toilet, rendering the plumbing system useless. The airline gave me a $200 voucher for a future flight and $25 worth of food vouchers to use at the airport while I waited. Know what I’ll get from Amtrak for all my inconvenience? A 6-page survey asking me what I most enjoyed about my trip, and what suggestions I have to make future experiences more enjoyable.)

(I took Amtrak once while in college. I met a beautiful girl from Uruguay with whom I shared my Walkman. She fell asleep leaning her head against my shoulder for a few hours. Before I got off at my station, we exchanged addresses, and we wrote to each other for several years, though we never met again. Naturally, THAT trip featured zero delays. Hell, we probably got in early.)

My nephews, by the way, got in at 4:30 PM. They only beat me by about 14 hours. But if they drank soda and coffee on the way down, they had to pay for it. Suckers.

(POSTSCRIPT: Standing on the freezing platform at Union Station, waiting for the first Red Line train of the day to take me to Takoma. Sign says "ARR TIME 13 MINUTES." The time counts down. When the Arrival Time hits Zero, the sign lights up "BOARDING." Except that the train doesn't stop- "NO PASSENGERS." And now the sign reads "ARR TIME 20 MINUTES." I didn't know that the saying "you can't go home again" was meant to be taken literally. It would make a decent slogan for rail service in this country though.)


  1. Your country and mine; the passenger rail service on this continent is quite simply atrocious.

  2. I'll point to this blog post when people ask me why I don't travel more.

  3. Personally, I think that Amtrak is run by people who have as their goal the final destruction of rail travel in the United States. Think Judge Doom in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"

  4. I agree with your nephews. I'm a driver. If I have a choice I will drive every time. If there is traffic you take a back road. I like being in complete control of my situation. The first day I had my drivers license way back in 1996 it snowed over a foot and I have been a professional snow driver ever since. I live in northern NJ and was right in the middle of the storm. This didn't stop me from driving 40 minutes to my buddies house for dinner and drinks and driving home at 9:00pm. I couldn't go over 40mph but it wasn't too bad. Only once in my life did I get stuck. It was 3:00am and I got a mid-blizzard craving for beef jerky. I lost control of my 1995 Camry and smashed into an 8 foot high snow drift. I used my bare hands and the floor mat to dig myself out.

  5. I'm a big fan of mass transit-- I'd love to see the country crisscrossed with high-speed rail and a significant decrease in the number of cars on the roads. But we'll never have that as long as Amtrak is the symbol of rail travel and the vast majority of Americans never experience the rail systems in other countries like Japan, France and now China. As the rest of the world gets it right, we are still just one step above having people shoveling coal into a roaring fire just north of the "food service" car.

  6. PS to papers- I drive roundtrip from Maryland to Vermont three times a year- for spring break, for the summer, and for autumn break. If the weather was predictably good in December, I'd drive then, too. But I don't have snow tires, and the only affordable flights are to Manchester NH, 3 hours from my house in Vermont. So once a year, I have to deal with what often seems like a pointlessly slow voyage up the East Coast in conditions that weren't even particularly luxurious 120 years ago- and would be viewed as downright barbaric by anyone who traveled by train as late as the 1950s.